Born to Be Alive
I cried at the gym today.
I was on my nemesis, the stair climber. We face one another three times a week, on cardio days. No matter how many times I manage to make it through my 42-minute routine without dying, every single time I get on the thing I’m convinced that I’m not going to be able to do it again. For the first five minutes I completely forget how to breathe.
For the next 10 or so I convince myself that I’m having a heart attack.
After that, I more or less settle into things and plod grimly along, watching the minutes tick by and the number of imaginary floors I’ve climbed rise. My gym has a series of posters tacked to the wall in front of the climbers, each one showing a famous structure and how many floors its height equals. You’re supposed to get all excited about theoretically getting to the top of the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Stratosphere. My current workout has me climbing Dubai’s Burj Khalifa on a regular basis, which might be thrilling if I were actually, you know, getting to the top of the Burj instead of sweating in a gym in glorious Middletown, Delaware.
Anyway, there I was, somewhere around the 86th floor. All things considered, it actually wasn’t going badly, especially considering that yesterday was leg day and I was sore. It helped that I was listening to a new playlist on my iPod. I require music to get through cardio activities, especially the stair climber. It’s much easier to climb 200 floors when you can pretend you’re Stevie Nicks in the “I Can’t Wait” video or Madonna performing “Express Yourself” on the MTV Video Awards.
I normally listen to aggressive heavy rock. Today’s playlist, though, was made up of disco songs. And it was doing the trick. I’d gotten though almost half of the workout thanks to ABBA, Thelma Houston, Donna Summer, and the Bee Gees. I was feeling very groovy indeed.
And then “Born to Be Alive” came on.
I was 11 the summer that Patrick Hernandez’s only hit single was burning up the dance floors. Although our local rock-and-roll radio station didn’t play it, I heard the song on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 weekly countdown and loved it. Ten years later, I would hear it a lot in the gay clubs of New York, where it was frequently sandwiched in between current stompers like Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” and Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much.” It was particularly popular during Pride season, and one of my earliest memories of living in New York is seeing a sea of shirtless men dancing to it on the piers on a Sunday afternoon.
Sometimes things come out of nowhere—sounds, scents, tastes—and hit you with particular force. When the unmistakable notes of “Born to Be Alive” blasted into my ears, I immediately was transported back to those days in New York. I saw the faces of men my age dancing happily and with abandon. And then, just as quickly, I saw those faces disappear, winking out one by one as the specter of AIDS claimed them.
I’ve recently been watching the Ryan Murphy-created show Pose, which is set in New York in 1987 and focuses on gay ball culture. I arrived in New York around that time myself, and watching the show brings back a lot of memories. Several times while watching it I’ve broken out in sobs remembering the overwhelming fear many of us felt during that time, as well as the buoyancy of hope provided by coming together as a community.
Today, the words of “Born to Be Alive” brought those same tears. “It’s good to be alive,” Hernandez sings over and over to a beat that demands you respond to it. The message is simple and clear and true. And yet it’s also heartbreaking, as so many of the men who danced to it, never expecting what was about to hit them, are gone.
The good thing about crying on a stair climber at the gym is that if you sweat as much as I do, people tend not to notice. As I stood there, endlessly ascending, I thought about all of the people who would give anything to be standing where I was, their bodies well enough to be working out, strong enough to enjoy being alive. And so, tired as I was, I climbed for them, hitting repeat on my iPod and listening to a stupid disco song over and over until I reached the top of the Burj Khalifa.
Going to the gym at all is a direct result of my approaching 50th birthday. And I admit that I have days when I look at that upcoming milestone and get depressed over how little time might be left, of all the things still undone, and those that might remain undone. Today, though, as I walked up that invisible staircase, I was reminded how very fortunate I am to be here at all. How very fortunate I am to be alive. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. More Michael Thomas Ford